On a sunny afternoon in early December, Matt McMaster, ’13, recounted the disruptive behavior of a 12-year-old boy with Asperger’s Disorder and Oppositional Defiant Disorder, including one incident when the boy urinated on himself to express his displeasure with his teacher and classmates.

One by one, other students in Dr. Catherine Bagwell and Dr. Rick Mayes’ Children and Mental Health class described their experiences working with children in school and after-school settings. Judging from the animated classroom discussion that followed, this community-based learning (CBL) course made a powerful impression on students.

Bagwell, a psychology professor, and Mayes, a political science professor, designed this course, the cornerstone of their Sophomore Scholars in Residence program, to examine factors that adversely affect children’s mental health and the impact of children with mental-health problems on the education system and, ultimately, on education policy.

The Bonner Center for Civic Engagement helped Bagwell and Mayes identify Build It and Richmond Families Initiative (RFI) partner sites where their students could interact with children exhibiting a range of normal and abnormal behaviors.

Students volunteered at two inner-city public schools, an inner-city after-school program, a preschool, and an alternative school for emotionally disturbed children.

“We chose these sites because we wanted our students to observe what happens when low-income children with a lot of risk factors interact with the education system,” Bagwell explained.

The volunteer experience proved illuminating for the UR students. Some commented on the role environmental factors play in children’s mental health.

Ryan Roark, ’13, recounted the time a preschooler told him, “I know a lot of things I shouldn’t.”

Lisa Auster-Gussman, ’13, reflected on the negative images and experiences that bombard many low-income, inner-city children daily. “Horrible things were written in graffiti all over the school playground,” she said. “My mentee’s best friend’s uncle was murdered this semester.”

Other students commented on how mental disorders affect a child’s emotional well-being. “The lack of social interaction can take a real toll on a child,” Emily Blevins, ’13, said. “Even though they have emotional disturbances, they all want to fit in. It broke my heart.”

Weekly service with children in the community clearly informed students’ understanding of the mental-health and education-policy issues they were studying in class. So too did a fall-break trip to New York City. Students interacted with cutting-edge education reformers in some of the Big Apple’s most challenging school districts.

These types of CBL experiences energized Bagwell and Mayes’ students. “The community-based learning was the most important part of the class,” McMaster said. “It’s one thing to learn about Asperger’s in the classroom, it’s another thing to work with an Aspergian.”

Mayes agreed that CBL increased his students’ learning outcomes: “Field work connects the material you are studying to all your senses. You can feel it, smell it, hear it, see it in person. The children become the field educators for our UR students.”

Although Bagwell and Mayes required their students to work with children in the community only during the fall semester, most chose not only to continue, but to expand upon, their earlier community work by designing and implementing substantive projects at their service sites.

For example, during this spring semester, two students are teaching art classes at a school, two others are leading an after-school dance and drama program for middle-school children, and two others launched a program focused on science in the everyday world for elementary-school children. 

For these sophomores, community engagement clearly fostered engaged learning and engaged citizenship.

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